Last month it was my pleasure to host the No Video Jam, an audio game jam featuring accessible games without graphics. In two weeks dozens of developers created 20 games that were accessible to gamers who are blind. We had a variety of submissions, from action games to interactive fiction, that surprised and delighted. Continue reading to learn more about how it went and the lessons I learned from organizing my first jam.
Organizing my first game jam
After working with the audio gaming community to finish soundStrider, and my experience participating in GMTK Jam 2020, I thought it would be a great community-building execrise to organize one of our own. Little did I know that I would happily shoulder most of its responsibilities.
In the beginning there was no video
It started with a forum thread where I gauged interest in the jam at all. The initial response was positive and filled with excitement. After debating its location and dates, suddenly it was actually happening. So I created a basic jam page on itch.io and set up a Discord server for us to discuss further. And once everything solidified I posted an announcement here.
Once the jam page was set up it practically ran itself. Its placeholder name and logo stuck. Its rules were self-explanatory: be blind-friendly, only use legal assets, and don’t hate or discriminate. With little advertisement we got featured on itch.io, the Discord grew, and we surpassed 100 participants. I’m especially thankful that a good friend of mine shared it with his colleagues. Perhaps it was its niche focuses on accessibility and making games without graphics, but folks seemed to be fired up and ready to jam.
At times my duties exceeded my expectations. Some folks needed help organizing into teams, to which I responded by creating a community thread and a channel on our Discord. When submissions closed I stayed awake a few extra hours to help folks with late submissions—it’s never happened to me, but for a slow jam with such low stakes I’d hate to be excluded by an arbitrary deadline. After that, there were some needed clarifications with uploding new builds, which for the most part I allowed.
My biggest challenge occurred when the rating period began. After sharing our submissions on the audio game forum, I was mortified to hear that the jam rating system on itch.io was not accessible to screen readers, excluding the majority of our target audience. It had the potential to be a disaster.
So I submitted an issue to itch.io and awaited their response, wishfully hoping that it could be resolved before ratings closed. Prior experience had shown that their support team can occasionally be slow to respond, but this time their administrator was quick, understanding, and helpful. Working with him and our users to improve their star rating widget was a pleasure that certainly solidified our belief in the platform as an inclusive space. Sincere thanks to leaf for listening to our feedback!
Learning from streamers
The first weekend after submissions closed I was excited to learn that PG13 plays had scheduled a two-day marathon of all the games. I’m grateful that two prominent members of the audio gaming community joined us in playing and judging our games. Fortunately, despite the time difference, I was able to tune in and chat with them on both streams. It was a blast!
Throughout their streams they offered invaluable perspective into how they interface with technology and the tropes they expect from audio games. I shared in their frustrations with certain game design and accessibility issues. I laughed with their jokes and the emergent behaviors that arose from games that defied their expectations. And I took notes to share with our developers.
On the first day of the stream they featured all of the games with desktop builds. Interestingly this stream showcased most of my personal favorites. Listen to day one of the stream below:
On the second day they picked back up with all of the games playable in the browser. I was especially delighted that they spent so much time with my submission, S.E.A., because it’s a game with more depth than its game page reveals. Listen to day two of the stream below:
If you’re interested in more from them, then I highly recommend subscribing to their channel. Recently they’ve played a few mainstream games—including a few that are inaccessible, during which hilarity ensues—so I’m excited to check in on them more when life returns to normal.
Pining for ratings
In its final days my biggest worry was a ratings deficit.
My biggest gripe about bigger game jams is how they quickly turn into popularity contests, with the winners typically being those who spend the most time repping their games. I understand that success with game development is largely a social exercise, but my hope with hosting a smaller jam was that we could engage the developers and the greater community to give equal playtime to each entry. I was wrong.
Whereas inspiring enthusiasm about entering the jam was an easy task, rocking the virtual vote felt as sisyphean as real-life politics. Regular postings on Discord, the community forum, or the audio games forum didn’t give as much visibility as I hoped, and there weren’t many other avenues to explore to solicit ratings. I feared that our developers weren’t going to receive the feedback they deserved from the folks they needed to hear it most.
Ultimately, I was one of the only developers who gave each submission a rating. Of the 131 ratings, my 19 ratings accounted for nearly 15% of them. Each submission received 6.5 votes on average, with a range of 2 to 9 votes. This was truly my only disappointment with the jam.
Assessing the submissions
Although we had no formal judges, given the relatively managable number of submissions I endeavored to give each of our developers a personalized review of their submission. For an entire week I spent about an hour with each submission and then wrote an average of 250 words, around four per day. Typically each review began with a short summary, detailed everything I liked, and then closed with friendly words of advice.
It was refreshing to spend so much time getting to know these games intimately. In my current situation I’m usually so trapped in my head and alone with the wildest ideas. Playing them reminded me of the creativity and ingenuity that exists in all of us, from conceptual design and storytelling to sound design and implementation. And by assuming a mentor role I fulfilled an interaction I’ve been craving for years.
For what it’s worth, reviews and advice are purely subjective, so I don’t claim to know everything. I’ve played only a fraction of the games that exist, my formal background represents a narrow subset of expertise, and I’ve only shipped one commercial game. Therefore my assessments and prescriptions are as worthy as anyone else’s.
However, I’m surprised how closely my ratings reflected the overall rankings. When selecting them I meticulously filled out a spreadsheet and graphed them to ensure a nice bell curve. Ultimately, only two of my assessments deviated from popular opinion, which helps me believe I approached them with some semblance of objectivity.
You can find my reviews on the individual entry pages.
My personal recommendations
There was so much to love about all of the submissions but it’s impossible to list them all. To narrow them to a shortlist of personal recommendations was an extremely difficult task. The following submissions, in alphabetical order, received a score of 90% or higher from me:
Clashes of the Sky by tunmi13
In this dogfighting simulator we pilot a jet equipped with an arsenal of rockets and machine guns. Throughout our clashes in the sky we face comparable opponents who we must outmaneuver and outwit to defeat. The game is exciting, fast-paced, and challenging, and requires skill to earn silver, purchase upgrades, and stay alive.
Dyechan by merlinemyrs
From my review of Dyechan:
This choose-your-own-adventure game is short, sweet, and definitely full of surprises. Based in the near future, our protagonist has just set up a virtual assistant, and it doesn’t take long for things to go awry.
Lost Soul by Geek_Joystick
From my review of Lost Soul:
This journey as a lost soul is wholesome, delectable, and like life, more than it seems. When the game first starts we’re greeted by our charming protagonist.... Its five levels take us on a journey of increasing challenge and complexity... And by putting together these components we might discover something deeper.
Unwanted Passengers by Kalinka
As the unwanted passengers on a futuristic space transport we must stealthily follow the coos of our alien mother to safety. Unlike most games with an echolocation mechanic, her response to our cries emerge from our exit, which between us may lie a twisted path of lethal obstacles.
Approaching future jams
With the No Video Jam officially over I’m assessing what to do next. For the past three weeks I worked on the jam full-time. This included building my submission, responding to the community’s needs, and critically reviewing the games. It’s been a huge learning experience that’s introduced me to dozens of developers and folks in the audio gaming community. But it’s also taught me that we’re in this together and I can’t do this alone.
For a future No Video Jam to be successful I need to assemble a team. That team would include members of the audio gaming community and streamers who could help give visibility to the jam, objectively review its submissions, and help solicit ratings from the greater community. With a larger team we could reach more abled developers, instill the importance of accessibility across disciplines, and fulfil its goal of inspiring more inclusive games. I’m excited to reach out and pursue this again soon.
With all that said, I’d like to thank all of our participants for joining us. In two weeks you completed a game, and that’s a huge accomplishment. I can’t wait to follow where you go next.